Book Review: Mary Coin

Mary CoinMary Coin
By Marisa Silver
322 pp. Blue Rider Press. $26.95.

We have all seen the poignant Dorothea Lange WPA photograph of a depression-era migrant mother and her children–and perhaps even created our own stories about her. The picture, now on the cover of Marisa Silver’s new novel, Mary Coin, is unnerving in its immediacy. The fictionalized version, also unsettling, is nevertheless greatly satisfying.

While facts are the pegs upon which Silver hangs her story, it’s the characters’ feelings and thoughts that draw us in. The lives and reactions of the photographer, her subject, and a present-day history professor form a geometry of intersecting lines with one point in common, the photo: A young woman at the side of a dusty road in California with nothing to feed her seven children but frozen vegetables from the fields and birds the children manage to capture; a former society photographer now working for the Farm Security Administration; and an academic trying, decades later, to trace the truth of the picture.

The woman in the picture was named Florence Thompson, not Mary Coin, but in both real life and the novel, she did not make her name known until the very end of her life. By that time, the picture had become an icon of the Depression, appearing in textbooks, exhibits, and even on a postage stamp. Silver reminds us, however, that “Everyone wants to be known. Perhaps the ones who conceal themselves most of all. The question is: Who is foolhardy enough to go in search of them?”

We can be grateful that not just the WPA photographer but also author Marissa Silver went in search of the woman whose picture so many of us have gazed upon and wondered about. More than a beautifully-written and engrossing story, Mary Coin offers an opportunity to reflect on history—how it’s construed and maintained as well as what it conceals and reveals about individuals.

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